Existentialism and the Denial of Death
In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, Peter Ivanovich experiences a chilling moment as he contemplates his own mortality in light of the long and painful period of torture and agony that befell his colleague Ivan Ilych before his eventual demise. “Three days of frightful suffering and the death! Why, that might suddenly, at any time, happen to me,” he thought, and for a moment felt terrified.
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But – he did not himself know how – the customary reflection at once occurred to him that this had happened to Ivan Ilych and not to him, and that it should not and could not happen to him, and that to think that it could would be yielding to depression which he ought not to do…After which reflection Peter Ivanovich felt reassured, and began to ask with interest about the details of Ivan Ilych’s death, as though death was an accident natural to Ivan Ilych but certainly not to himself” (Tolstoy 24).
In this passage Tolstoy illuminates a dilemma central to the experience of being human – how to live with the understanding that death can happen at any moment. The answer, for many people, is to do as Peter Ivanovich has done here: repress it. The reality of death and the yin yang relationship it holds with life is rarely viewed as such. Rather, the perspective on death is as an unfortunate circumstance that befalls others.
The individual’s experience of death as somehow unexpected, accidental or independent of his or her life affects the quality of life, since the repression requires so much effort to maintain. This essay examines the treatment of death in most Western cultures and highlights some of the means in which it is denied, hidden, sanitized, covered up, and, most importantly, deprived of its existential import.
As evidenced by the reaction of Peter Ivanovich, awareness of mortality comes in flashes which manifest as moments of sheer, unadulterated terror, quickly rationalized and then suppressed again with renewed vigor. Among the Western cultures death remains denied and camouflaged by numerous secular contemporary practices including plastic surgery, euthanasia, homes for seniors, funeral homes and life insurance commercials that tout the advantages of leaving money to loved ones if “the unexpected” happens.
This essay takes as its main thesis the idea put forth by Heidegger in Being and Time that even the person who is dying cannot experience death, because he cannot view it in its proper context – i.e. as part of life. In Heidegger’s words, “when Dasein reaches its wholeness in death, it simultaneously loses the Being of its “there”. By its transition to “no-longer-Dasein”…it gets lifted right out of the possibility of experiencing this transition and of understanding it as something experienced.
Surely this sort of thing is denied to any particular Dasein in relation to itself. But this makes the death of Others more impressive. In this way a termination…of Dasein becomes ‘Objectively’ accessible. Dasein can thus gain an experience of death, all the more so because Dasein is essentially Being with Others. In that case, the fact that death has been thus ‘Objectively’ given must make possible an ontological delimitation of Dasein’s totality” (Heidegger 281).
This opportunity that Heidegger points to however is rarely grasped. Rather, like Peter Ivanovich, the living ignore the elephant in the room, completely repress their fear of death and continue on as though death will somehow affect everyone else except them.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning work The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker details the important function repression serves in the psyche of the Western cultural mind. “Repression takes care of the complex of the complex symbol of death for most people. But its disappearance doesn’t mean that the fear was never there” (Becker 20).
Strategies to keep death unwitnessed and denied include plastic surgery, the persistent erroneous language applied to death as accidental, and, in Becker’s understanding, the “large dimension in which the complex symbol of death is transmuted and transcended…[is] belief in immortality, the extension of one’s being into eternity” (Becker 24). Essentially, death’s removal from everyday life makes it too difficult to reintegrate. If the fear of death were conscious, Becker argues, human beings would be “unable to function normally.
It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort. We know very well that to repress means more than to put away and forget that which was put away and the place where we put it. It means also to maintain a constant psychological effort to keep the lid on and inwardly never relax our watchfulness” (Becker 17).
What this leads to is a dimmer, numbed experience of life. Every time a person dies unwitnessed, a life affirming opportunity is lost. The opportunity that a mindful and conscious witnessing of the death of another human being, as Heidegger argues, that might honor the existential importance of death, specifically the transition from Being, most people are simply too afraid to accept.
Heidegger asserts that “when someone has died, his Being-no-longer-in-the-world…is still a Being, but in the sense of the Being-just-present-at-hand-and-no-more of a corporeal Thing that we encounter.
In the dying of the Other we can experience that remarkable phenomenon of Being which may be defined as the change-over of an entity from Dasein’s kind of Being…or life…to no-longer-Dasein. The end of the entity qua Dasein is the beginning of the same entity qua something present-at-hand” (Heidegger 281). A true understanding of death’s proper place as the partner of life rather than life’s enemy would naturally lead to richer experience of living.
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The elephant in the room of life is death. Like birth, it is a universal human experience, however as the former continues to be celebrated, the latter continues to be shunned in the majority of Western cultures.
As a whole death remains denied, hidden, sanitized, covered up, and, most importantly, deprived of its existential import, because it continues to be kept apart from living, instead of shared as part of the human experience.
In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, Peter Ivanovich represents the common reaction to mortality – terror – quickly repressed, and culturally camouflaged by numerous practices including plastic surgery, euthanasia, homes for seniors, funeral homes and language that consistently labels death as “the unexpected” happens.
As Heidegger aptly points out in Being and Time, in this repression, an opportunity becomes lost, as even the individual who is dying cannot experience death, because he cannot view it in its proper context, namely, a part of life of life to be witnessed, appreciated and accepted.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1997. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. Print.